" Genius of Britain," a series consisting of five, 45-minute episodes is the perennial double-edged sword of educational programming. A product of British television, the series examines the great minds of science to come out of England and their influence on the world. While this may sound considerably narrow-minded, the selections of the series are all titans of the modern scientific world and for three of the series' episodes, it would be hard to argue against the focus on the small, but powerful nation. However, despite being a fantastic, informative series, "Genius of Britain" comes with a glaring flaw, one often associated with programming meant for a wide range of ages.
Employing various scientists, designers, and presenters to break up the flow of the series, "Genius of Britain," starts with the aptly named "Big Five," consisting of two godfathers of modern science: Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke, as well as Christopher Wren, Edmund Halley (yes, that Halley), and of course, Isaac Newtown. Employing a separate presenter for each segment, "The Genius of Britain" is an enlightening experiment providing both biographical background on these great minds, but also focusing on their major accomplishments. The segment on Hooke stands out notably, as the program isn't just content to tell us about his use of the early microscope to discover the structure of a flea; instead it gets a vintage, 300+ year old microscope and shows up what Hooke saw himself. It's a simple touch that does wonders for helping viewers make a connection to the material.
The premiere episode ends with a startling revelation that Newton did his dandiest to erase Hooke and Boyle from history, but thankfully he didn't. While no one would ever discredit the contributions of Newton, it's a bit saddening to learn he was insecure of his predecessors. The opposite effect occurs in the second episode, which jumps slightly forward in history and examines a new batch of British scientists, including the two contributors to the theory of evolution: Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace. The remainder of the series keeps up the theme of introducing the scientist, discussing a contribution and if applicable connecting them to other scientists examined. It's well done and effective, but as the series closes in on modern breakthroughs such as DNA and nanotechnology, viewers will want more.
The quest for more is where "Genius of Britain" slightly stumbles and cements its status as a program likely best viewed on television, once. There's not a great deal of depth to any of the subjects tackled and while this will surely drive the intrigued to seek out new information, it kills any replay value of the series. A person such as myself, with a heavy scientific background is stretched thin to find little more in the program than a list of names and reminders of contributions. It's more than a bit of a shame because the presentation of the series is top notch, the presenters are highly effective in engaging viewers and show natural enthusiasm, but when you get inventors such as James Dyson, Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking, a general love for science would be hard to fake.
"Genius of Britain" is a great first step in exploring the contributions of numerous, very British, but very influential minds of science. It does a more than adequate job of giving a rundown of key figures from the 1700s to the present, but that's about it. It doesn't rely on gimmicks to keep interests and does the best it can to give each figure ample recognition, but when you're pressed with covering five figures and their achievements in only 45-minutes, well, the math speaks for itself. Only in the series' final episode does what is promised not occur, as the hyped discussion between Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking, come very late in the program and while insightful, is more of a curiosity piece than a wealth of knowledge.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is a solid affair. Colors are natural and detail is above average. A straightforward documentary series, the presenter segments look the best, while archival footage for more recent topics serves their purpose well. No signs of digital tinkering are evident.
The Dolby Digital English stereo audio track is more than adequate with the narrative heavy program relaying clear, distortion free dialogue, with the understated musical score mixed back enough that it adds ambience and is never the focal point. English subtitles for the hearing impaired are included.
As good, but limited as the main program was, the bonus feature is actually more of a reason to consider purchasing the set. The 90-minute program "Stephen Hawking and the Theory of Everything" is a fascinating look at the iconic genius and his quest to find a unified explanation for the universe. It has much higher replay value than the main feature, and is able to go into more detail regarding the topics explored. Text-based biographies of the series' presenters are included on the main discs and a printed viewers guide is included.
"Genius of Britain" is a great documentary series, but is plagued by such wide appeal that its replay value is incredibly low. For the average viewer, it might make a nice addition to a library of scientific material, but for the true aficionado, it's worth one viewing at best. The bonus disc however, is a huge plus and in many ways the superior program. This set, just barely gets a mild recommendation from me, despite its high quality. Recommended.